In with the new: welcoming the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

CGI model of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

CGI model of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

On 9 January 2014 the great Jacobean tragedy The Duchess of Malfi will be the first play to be performed at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the second performance space in the Shakespeare’s Globe complex on the south bank of the Thames. It’s been a long time coming:  Wanamaker died just over twenty years ago, and the reconstructed Globe was officially opened back in 1997. The new playhouse is an indoor theatre, and as well as giving the Globe the opportunity for year-round performances it will allow them to investigate the repertoire of plays that were written with indoor performance in mind. The playhouse will seat only 340, so it’s going to be an intimate experience quite different from the open air Globe. The layout has been based on a sketch found in a book in Worcester College Oxford in the 1960s that seems to be a design for an indoor playhouse. The sketch was originally thought to be by Inigo Jones, but it now thought to be by his protege John Webb. With no plans or images of Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Playhouse, his indoor theatre, it’s the best evidence there is.

Dominic Dromgoole, Artistic Director of Shakespeare's Globe, in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Dominic Dromgoole, Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe, in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

What will set the new space apart, though, is not the shape of the auditorium but the fact it is to be candlelit. The beeswax candles for each performance will cost up to £500 and will take several hours to set up. During the play the candles will be trimmed or replaced just as they would have been originally. The five-act structure which we all think of as Shakespearian was introduced in order to allow this to take place. Music was played while the candles were being sorted out and these necessary breaks would have been written into plays that were to be performed there. I’ve never seen a play lit solely by candlelight, but I have experienced several productions in intimate theatres in which electric lighting was used very subtly, such as the 1989 production of The Duchess of Malfi at the Swan Theatre, Arden of Faversham in 1982 at the original Other Place, and, most memorably A Woman Killed With Kindness, performed in 1991 at the second Other Place. In this production the lighting was so low I remember longing for them to turn it up. I’m a great admirer of the ability of modern theatrical lighting to enhance productions without drawing attention to itself, and I’m looking forward to seeing how modern audiences respond to plays lit by candles alone.

This post was written a year or so by Professor Andrew Gurr about the Blackfriars and the idea of the new theatre.  Among the press interest there has been a page about the theatre on the BBC’s website, and Andrew Dickson has written a piece for the Guardian. Earlier this week the BBC broadcast a half-hour radio documentary to coincide with the new theatre’s opening: Staging a Revenge: The New Jacobean Theatre.  It will be available to listen to again for a few days.

Title page of John Lyly's Galatea

Title page of John Lyly’s Galatea

In a couple of month’s time Edward’s Boys, the schoolboy troupe from Shakespeare’s own school in Stratford-upon-Avon will be staging John Lyly’s play Galatea. After first performances at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford and the Levi Fox Hall in Stratford-upon-Avon they will be taking the play to the Sam Wanamaker Theatre on 27 April, to coincide with a study day at the Globe on its author. John Lyly’s play was first performed at court in 1588, and published in 1592. The title page states that it had been performed by the Children of Paul’s, the most important of the boys playing companies. It was also performed at Blackfriars, so its performance by a group of boys at the new playhouse is keenly anticipated.

The Duchess of Malfi is, not surprisingly, sold out as people clamour to see what the new theatre is like.  It’s also one of the finest  of Jacobean plays, and very much worth seeing in its own right.  It’s been a smart move not to schedule any Shakespeare in the first season of plays in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, but for most people it will be seeing his familiar plays in a very different setting that will bring the theatre to life.

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